Paul and Apocalyptic: Two Ages?

Apocalyptic thinking often divides history into various periods. Daniel’s outline of history as four coming kingdoms is one example, but there are others in apocalyptic literature. Perhaps the most common way for apocalyptic thinking to divide history is to describe this age as evil and the coming age of God’s kingdom. In the future this evil age come under judgment and be replaced with the way God intended it to be in the first place. Although it is possible an apocalyptic thinker may also took back to an ideal age in the past, the basic “this age and the age to come” is fundamental for apocalyptic thinking.


Paul uses this language in Galatians 1. At the beginning of the letter, Paul develops who Jesus Christ, or Jesus Messiah is. Jesus is the one who “gave himself for our sins” and in doing so, Jesus set us free from this “present evil age.” The wording is reminiscent of Isaiah 53:5, 12 in the Greek Old Testament. It is possible Paul describes Jesus in this way because it was already familiar to his readers. Jesus has already provided salvation through his work on the cross and those who are in Christ are already saved out of the present evil age.

This “evil age” is a common way of describing the present time in Paul’s letters as well as other Jewish first century writings. In the Dead Sea Scrolls, for example, one important document calls the present age the “epoch of evil” (1QpHab 5:7) and the late-first century Jewish apocalypse 4 Ezra describes the present age as a time when Belial (Satan) is opposing God’s will (7:12). Like these other Jewish writers, Paul is looking forward to a future kingdom. But he also thinks believers in Christ are already participating in the blessings of that future age. Paul contends we have already been rescued from this evil age.

But it is equally obvious we do not live fully in the Kingdom of God yet. Although some streams of theology have summed up the Kingdom as the church, this does not seem to do justice to Paul’s overall theology. He really does look forward to the return of Jesus as a time when perishable will become imperishable and this old, evil age will finally be replaced by God’s rule.

For Paul, we live in a time “between the ages.” Christ’s death stands between the Old Covenant of the Law and the future establishment of the Kingdom of God. The book of Galatians is one of the earliest witnesses we have to what the first generation of Christians thought about the death of Jesus. It is clear from Acts the earliest followers of Jesus expected his return very soon (Acts 3:19-20). Paul believed some who are now alive may live until the return of the Lord (1 Thess 4:17).

This “between the ages” perspective drives much of Paul’s ethics as well. We are to live our lives motivated by the nearness of the return of the Lord. A passage like Romans 13:11-14 bases proper ethical conduct on a clear understanding of the “present time.” Since the night of this dark age is almost over, it is time to wake up and “clothe ourselves with Christ.”

Good apocalyptic thinking drives proper ethical conduct in Paul, not paranoid rambling about the Anti-Christ taking away our freedoms. Nor does Paul ever suggest we take our survival kits and guns into the hills and fight the government to the death. This evil age ought to drive us to more good, loving behavior toward those who hate.

21 thoughts on “Paul and Apocalyptic: Two Ages?

  1. A balanced, sane post, Phil. While apocalyptic writings fuel the imagination, I think they are best read as a prescription for the present, not the future. I find kinship between apocalyptic writing and the words of the philosopher who said, “Religion is the sigh of the oppressed creature, the heart of a heartless world, and the soul of soulless conditions” and Amos’ plea to let justice roll like a river, so long as it’s not a river of blood.

  2. How can a pastor (and there are many) preach saving souls one day and spend the next buying additional weapons? Our view of the Apocalypse is based more on Hollywood than the Bible.

    I try to imagine how Paul spent 3 years in Ephesus, filled as it was with sex and idolatry. He managed without owning weapons or killing anyone. I’m sure he kept his head down when the street orgies began, but otherwise worked on his tents as he talked about the Messiah.

  3. I think that Paul has a mindset of preparedness. He knows that the Lord is risen, and can see that the world would be changed because of it. What if the destruction of the world that we see when we think of apocalypse in the modern knowledge of the world, is what we are living through? Ever since the Fall, the world has been getting worse off than it was, it is being destroyed. We are living in a time of destruction, and hatred in the world. I am not saying we are living in an apocalypse, but are we living for a time when Christ can come back? Would you want your world to look like this if you knew that Jesus would return to it tomorrow? I think this may be where Paul was going with his writings. Are you ready for Christ’s return? Would you be content with what you’ve done on earth or could you do more? I don’t know, just a thought…

  4. I think a common mistake made by Christians today is the idea that the kingdom of God is something that will be established in the future, and is irrelevant to how we live now. As Paul mentions in Galatians 1, Jesus “gave himself up for our sins to rescue us from the present evil age.” The word “rescue” here is in the present tense, which suggests we already rescued from the evil of the present age, not that we are awaiting this rescue. If believers lived in such a way, they would not focus so much on their sin or the evil that is so prevalent all around, but in our rescue and the freedom that brings through Jesus. If people would recognize this freedom, as it is “for freedom Christ has set us free” (Gal. 5:1), their lives would be drastically different. “Jesus did not simply manage to evade Sin’s clutches…he overcame Sin’s power” (TTP 308). For believer’s, this means that we also are no longer in bondage to sin, but can live free from it, now able to do the good to which we have been called.

  5. If the idea of the coming kingdom is judgement for those who do not trust Christ as savior and hope for those who do, then the church ought to respond in such a way that brings more people into the church. People become scared that something bad will happen and then retreat into their barracks. However, if we are secure in our hope that God wins in the end, this should drive the behavior of the church toward love and evangelism to get as many people as we can to trust Christ as savior. In his letter to Timothy Paul tells him to fight the good fight maintaining his good confession of the faith and living in a godly way. He tells him to do these things until Christ appears (1 Timothy 6:11-14). Since Christ is coming back this is the motivation for them to do the right things. If the kingdom is already here, then the evil in the world was able to take some sort of hold. I think that it puts too much responsibility on human beings if they are the ones who are to ultimately demolish evil. If the full coming of the kingdom involves Christ’s return, then it is God himself who will step into humanity and correct the problems of evil in the world.

  6. Christ went to prepare a place for us (John 14.3) and while he is gone he is also ruling at the right hand of the Father (Eph. 1.20; Col. 3:1). We on Earth await his eventual return (Titus 2.13). Since we know he is returning, we should be living as such. We should be spreading His message to everyone we meet. If there is a time limit why would we not try to go to heaven and take as many people with us as we can? It is our job as Christ’s ambassadors (2 Cor. 5.20) to portray our native land (heaven) to those who don’t know what it looks like. This view of apocalyptic thought gives Christians the need and the urgency required to share the gospel, however, we tend to place the return of Christ last on our list of concerns and it is for this reason, we are failing to show love like we are expected.

  7. Good apocalyptic thinking can mean looking forward to God changing our lives, as well as looking forward to the Coming of Christ. And because you would look forward to His Coming, you would want to be an ethical person because Jesus can come back at any moment and we should be encouraged that he is coming again (1 Pet 3:8, Gal 6:10). We are supposed to “overthrow chaos [in the world] and instill right-relationed order” because we follow Jesus and his power is working through us until he returns (TTP 343).

  8. Is the kingdom of God a future reality we are hoping to experience or is it something which we are currently living? The kingdom of God is very present and Luke 17:20-21. When Jesus was asked by the Pharisees, when the kingdom of God was coming, he replied by saying “the kingdom of God is not coming with signs to be observed, nor will people say here it is or there is it, because the kingdom of God is in your midst. When we choose to trust Christmas and put our trust we also choose to enter the kingdom. I believe that we are currently living in the kingdom of God despite our struggle with sin.

  9. I like your view of apocalyptic thinking in comparison to socialite’s views. When I think apocalypse, I think of the end times with mass destruction with possible Zombies and war between nations, typical Hollywood and movie interpretation of the end times. But Paul has a different perspective of the end times. As stated above; Paul is not suggesting we put together our survival kits and build bomb shelters– he is stating that the thought of the end times and evil should encourage us to love others and do more good today. The end times are coming, but we should be comforted that God is in control, not the “competing forces”, and should try to love more with this in mind (1 Cor 15:24) (TTP, 304).

  10. Our culture is so focused on entertainment through giving possible “apocalyptic” scenarios like “The Walking Dead” that we seem to forget that the coming Day of the Lord is not what we have been shown in the movies. These forms of entertainment, while extremely fun to watch and imagine, are twisting and distorting the view of the coming Kingdom that Jesus wants us to focus on. If we live out our everyday life like zombies are going to suddenly show up then we will be living a life of fear and God will get nothing from that. If we do live our lives with the thinking that Jesus could be returning at any moment, we will start to live a more ethical and Godly life because we will always be expecting the coming of Jesus and trying to live our lives in a way that would be glorifying to Him if He were to come now.

  11. I think it’s funny that I’m not the only one to think that today’s society thinks the Apocalipse will happen with a zombie scenario or something close to that. Although it is funny, it is also a concerning to me that these type of apocalyptic view is being exposed to us. I’ve had conversation with Christians that truly believe in “The Walking Dead” or “Supernatural” series as what the world will look like when the apocalipse come.

    Paul’s view of the apocalipse is very sober and solid. We live in a cursed world that is getting worse everyday and in my opinion it will become worse until the second coming of Jesus. Until there we need to be covered by the armor of God (Eph 6:10-18) and await his righteousness to rule over the earth. I do have a post-tribulation view of the apocalipse that leads me to different process of thinking than those who are pre-tribulation, but regardless of when Jesus is coming, Paul tells us to be prepared and to don’t fear, because we have been set free. Even though affliction may come, we are called to be sanctified and to reflect the glory of God.

  12. I think that the two age view is spot on. There was the establishment of the Covenant with the Law, or the first age. Jesus then came and was the fulfillment of that Law. Now we are in that waiting room in between, looking forward to the second age of the Kingdom. I think that Paul wanted people to be prepared for the coming of the Kingdom, but also to not be so focused on its coming that we forget to do the work that is at hand. So while indeed we do look forward to what is coming, we also need to be ministry minded while we are here – just because Jesus is coming back soon does not mean that there is no work to do. It is a beautiful tension that we live in.

  13. I think that Paul’s ethical conduct and instructions often were connected somehow to the next age, or the “end of the age” when Jesus would be coming back. He wanted fellow Christ-followers to be prepared,because He knew that the coming of the Lord would be swift, and thought Christ would return while some of them were still alive. I think his ethical guidelines were not only placed because of his belief in the end coming soon, but because he felt we should be copying Christ’s moral behavior. He wanted the churches to be leading lives that glorified God, and that set them apart from the people living around them. Back then, like today, society was corrupted and drawn to sinful pleasures. Paul wanted to draw a distinct line between their conduct and that of the unbelievers surrounding them. I think it is important nowadays, just like in his day, to live ethically moral and Christ-centered lives. As Christians we ought to be living as if we might not be here tomorrow, whether that be because of apocalyptic reasons or we personally pass away one day. I believe that we often get caught up overly in possessions or obsessions, and that those can get in the way of living out fully for God. As Longenecker and Still point out, Paul told Timothy the following since he was dealing with a wicked generation, Timothy was to train himself spiritually, and be wholly devoted in both life and doctrine, (TTP, 279). We should follow those instructions as we go about our daily lives as well.

  14. I agree. I think that Paul did not want us to turn into the kind of people that prepare for the zombie apocalypse, with paranoia in our hearts. I think that we need to have a loving attitude towards our enemies, no matter how scary they may be. We need to pray for our enemies, and treat them how we want to be treated.

  15. 1 Thess. 5:1-11 talks about the day of the Lord. Paul encourages them in verse 6 to be “awake and sober” instead of “asleep.” This follows a teaching and an encouragement to live sexually moral lives for the Lord’s sake. Directly between these two sections is a part about believers who have died, but that kind of leads in to the Day of the Lord speech anyway. So it can be seen that Paul’s apocalyptic view calls for stronger and more enforced ethics. The Thessalonians (and other Christians) being the children of light, they should encourage one another and build each other up (v. 11).

  16. I think that the apocalyptic nature of Paul’s writing in terms of end times (i.e. Present evil age, age to come) goes hand in hand with his teaching about conducting oneself as a ‘citizen of heaven’ (Phil. 3:20). Paul told the Philippians that the ultimate citizenship is that of heaven, and to act accordingly. In the same way, Paul’s teachings were parallel to ‘Jewish apocalypticism’ and an understanding of the nature of that literature means God has worked to begin the reversal of the powers of sin in the world, instituted in the coming of Jesus (Longenecker, 303). His death was the final apocalyptic punch that sent sin packing, though temptation still runs rampant. This is perhaps why Paul had to teach so adamantly about the resurrection of Christ. It is where God won the victory, and gave us power over sin (Rom. 6:14). The Devil’s greatest tool is advocating unbelief and distracting people from the fact that the victory is won! Paul’s teaching definitely advocate apocalyptic literature and it has great implications for believers then and now.

  17. Paul believed one should not judge but wait for the Lord to arrive and judge the hell out of the world. But that day wasn’t far off according to Paul. Paul was a fanaticus extremis.

    ‘The rulers of this age… are passing away [“will not last much longer” – Today’s English Version]… Do not go on passing judgment before the time [i.e., “before the time” of final judgment which he predicted was near at hand], but wait until the Lord comes who will both bring to light the things hidden in the darkness and disclose the motives of men’s hearts… The time has been shortened so that from now on both those who have wives should be as though they had none [i.e., Paul preached that the time was so “short” that married Christian couples “from now on” would be better off to consider celibacy so they could serve the Lord full time]; and those who weep, as though they did not weep; and those who rejoice, as though they did not rejoice; and those who buy, as though they did not possess; and those who use the world, as though they did not make full use of it [i.e., this was not the time for marriage or buying or selling, it was best to serve the Lord full time, like Paul was doing, while awaiting his soon return, or as Paul also said, “it is good for a man not to touch a woman,” and, “I wish all men were as I am” (celibate) 1 Cor 7]; for the form of this world is passing away [“This world, as it is now, will not last much longer” – Today’s English Version]… …These things were written for our instruction, upon whom the ends of the ages have come…

    Paul continues in the same letter:

    Proclaim the Lord’s death until he comes [i.e., Paul did not say, “Proclaim the Lord’s death until the day you die,” but rather, “until he comes,” which means that he considered Christ’s coming to be nearer than the time when the believers he was writing to would all be dead]. We [Paul and the first century believers being addressed] shall not all sleep… At the last trumpet… the dead will be raised… and we shall be changed. Maranatha [=”Come Lord”]’1 Cor 2:6; 4:5; 7:29-31; 10:11; 11:26; 15:51-52; 16:22

    Or consider what Paul wrote to the believers at Thessalonica:

    …How you turned to God from idols…to wait for His Son from heaven [Compare 1 Cor 1:7, “…awaiting eagerly the revelation (revealing) of our Lord Jesus Christ”]… For who is our… crown… Is it not even you [the first century Christians being addressed], in the presence of our Lord Jesus at his coming?… May establish your hearts… before our God and Father at the coming of our Lord Jesus with all His saints. For this we say to you by the word of the Lord, that we [Paul and the first century Christians being addressed] who are alive and remain [notice how Paul included himself as one who will still be alive] until the coming of the Lord, shall not precede those who have fallen asleep…the dead in Christ shall rise first. Then we who are alive and remain shall be caught up together with them in the clouds to meet the Lord in the air… May your spirit and soul and body be preserved complete without blame at the coming of our Lord Jesus Christ. [1 Thes 1:9,10; 2:19; 3:13; 4:15-17; 5:23]

    Keep in mind to whom Paul wrote the above letters, and also that Paul claimed that he was repeating a “word” that he had received directly from “the Lord.” What marvelous truth was revealed to Paul in this astonishing revelation? Namely, that “we” [the first century Christians who “remained alive” at the time this letter was written, including Paul, its author] “shall be caught up…in the clouds to meet the Lord in the air!” For Paul there was no doubt that Jesus would arrive before he and the believers he addressed would all be dead. “We,” including himself, “shall not all sleep” [1 Cor 15:51]. Yet all of those to whom Paul once wrote, including Paul, now “sleep” – the “word of the Lord” notwithstanding.

    In his second letter to the Thessalonians, Paul remained just as certain that Jesus would return shortly:

    …It is just for God to repay with affliction those who afflict you, and to give relief to you who are afflicted and to us as well when the Lord Jesus shall be revealed from heaven with his mighty angels in flaming fire, dealing out retribution…these will pay the penalty…when He comes… [2 Thes 1:6-10]
    That is to say, Jesus would be revealed from heaven “with his mighty angles in flaming fire” soon enough to “relieve” the afflictions of the Thessalonians, and Paul, and other first century Christians!

    Or take these passages from Paul’s letter to the believers at Philippi:

    …He who began a good work in you [the first century Christians being addressed] will perfect it until the day of Christ Jesus [i.e., rather than saying, “until the day you die,” which he assumed was not going to happen to all of them, since, as Paul pointed out in 1 Cor, “we shall not all sleep!”]… …In order to be sincere and blameless until the day of Christ [Compare 1 Tim 6:14, “Keep the commandment…until the appearing of our Lord Jesus Christ.”]… …We eagerly wait for a Savior, the Lord Jesus Christ… …Let your forbearing spirit be known to all men. The Lord is near. [Philip 1:6,10; 3:20; 4:5]

    What about Paul’s famous letter to the Christians at Rome?

    …The sufferings of this present time are not worthy to be compared with the glory that is soon [mello] to be revealed to us… The whole creation groans and suffers the pains of childbirth together until now… We…groan within ourselves, waiting eagerly for our adoption as sons, the redemption of our body… Knowing the time, that it is already the hour for you to awaken from sleep; for now salvation is nearer to us than when we believed! The night is almost gone, and the day is at hand… The God of peace will soon crush Satan under your feet. [Rom 8:18,22-23; 13:11-12; 16:20]

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